NEW YORK — Growing up in Cambridge in the 1980s, Emelie Gevalt would make semi-regular excursions with her family to Longfellow House, the stately Georgian manor at 105 Brattle St. The National Historic Site’s story, as told by the National Parks Service, was clear: British loyalist John Vassall Jr. built the home in 1759, but abandoned it as cries of Revolution grew louder. George Washington claimed the Vassall estate in 1775 as the first headquarters of the Revolutionary army. The place was, Gevalt learned, a key incubator of the nascent American ideal of freedom.
But that’s not the story Gevalt tells in “Unnamed Figures: Black Presence and Absence in the Early American North,” the profoundly moving exhibition she co-curated at New York’s American Folk Art Museum, on view through the end of March. Instead, the show puts on view a ragged handmade doll of a Black man in colonial garb, made in the 1850s by a child named Mary Saunders. The doll was a tribute to Cambridge hero Darby Vassall, who was born enslaved to John Vassall Jr. and abandoned, along with his parents, and two siblings, when the British loyalist fled Cambridge. Yet the story of Darby and his family is as formative to Cambridge history as Washington’s: Darby’s parents, Tony and Cuba, petitioned the government for their freedom, bought an acre of land near Harvard Square, and established Lewisville, old Cambridge’s historic Black community. Darby and his brother, Cyrus, would become advocates for Black advancement and champions of abolition.
“I went to school on Vassall Lane, I grew up going to the church where Darby Vassall was buried, and visiting that house, where he was born,” Gevalt said. “There was never any mention of the enslaved people who lived in the house. So when people ask what brought me to the project, it might not seem obvious at first, but it feels very personal.”
At Longfellow House, much has changed — the enslaved Vassall family’s story, all but invisible during Gevalt’s childhood, is now vital to the site’s programming — while in so many others, incomplete histories are left undisturbed. “Unnamed Figures” is a broad restorative gesture, evoking buried narratives of Black resilience across centuries of early American history.
The exhibition is rooted right here in New England, where narratives of abolition and freedom have in some cases come to paper over the region’s complicity in the country’s original sin. The curators offer a corrective specific to the region, and a broader exploration of the subjective vagaries of cultural memory. Despite exhaustive research by Gevalt and her co-curators, RL Watson, an assistant professor at Lake Forest College, and Sadé Ayorinde, a predoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Museum, many of the stories they assemble here remain partial and fragmented, an emptiness that only strengthens its thesis. It is among the most powerful exhibitions I’ve ever seen.
The show is significant, too, for its source. Folk art, a catch-all term popularized in the early 20th century for homespun work made by untrained artisans, has spent much of its existence regarded as quaintly primitive, beneath serious cultural consideration. “Unnamed Figures” is an exhilarating model that reveals the void that dismissal has created, and how a long-derided form can help make the fractured picture of American history more whole.
Leslie Umberger, the curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., told me the stigma attached to the genre has been fading, but only recently. At the beginning of her career, “I was routinely told I was not doing art history,” she said. “In the early days, I was just trying to get people to call it art. But it’s an evolving history, like any other, and those are extremely tired conversations by now.”
At SAAM, Umberger was part of the curatorial team for “American Voices and Visions,” the museum’s newly reinstalled contemporary galleries, which opened in September. The display integrates a number of self-taught artists like Purvis Young with canonized stars like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kerry James Marshall. Qualifications have begun to matter less than something much more elemental: “What do you need to have a meaningful experience with an artwork?” she said.
In New York, “Unnamed Figures” elides tired questions of expertise or training, instead opening a floodgate of meaning at its most visceral and heartfelt. Its title speaks to the exhibition’s ambitious conceptual frame. Most of the artists, where known, are white. Black absence looms large here — what’s not in the picture, what’s left unsaid — with works that convey powerful notions of loss, exclusion, and helplessness. Together, they propose a deliberate project of cultural amnesia, convenient to American narratives of liberty and justice.
Its dozens of pieces range from the 17th to 19th centuries. It includes painting but also things like embroidery, sculpture, and ceramics. Almost all of the work here has been borrowed from historical societies, house museums, and municipal archives; only a few come from bona fide art museums. Early photography, where for the first time Black Americans en masse had control of their own image, finishes the exhibition in a resounding display of self-possession — presence, fashioned by their own hands.
But exclusion resonates throughout the exhibition’s moody, low-lit galleries. John Orne Johnson Frost’s sunny, off-kilter view of Marblehead Harbor in 1867 is peppered with racks of dried cod, a key currency in the triangular trade that brought enslaved people to Massachusetts by the shipload; despite it, no Black figures exist in his frame. Just across from it hangs a trio of folksy early-19th-century paintings of Perry Hall, the grand plantation of the Gough family in Maryland’s Baltimore County, by Francis Guy. The family commissioned the paintings, sweeping views of their many acres; family members dot the rolling green, sometimes on horseback, each meticulously identified for posterity.
Unidentified Black figures appear in subservient roles: A Black groom attending to a Gough family riding outing, a young Black nursemaid, little more than a child herself, clasping the hand of a Gough family toddler.
The nursemaid haunted Gevalt, and became the genesis of “Unnamed Figures.” “Not only had this Black child not been identified, but it seems from the research that there hadn’t really been an underlying assumption that she was even a real person,” Gevalt said. “And if this was a real person, who could she have been?”
Among Guy’s many paintings of Perry Hall, Gevalt found a depiction of the estate’s slave quarters. The painting, she learned, hadn’t remained with the Goughs, but had been passed down through generations of the Halls, a Black family formerly enslaved at Perry Hall. Her research on the Halls yielded a rich lineage of achievement: Harry Sythe Cummings, a pioneering Black attorney in early-20th-century Baltimore; and Ida R. Cummings, Baltimore’s first Black kindergarten teacher. Tracking backward through the Hall family tree, it led her to speculate that the nursemaid might have been Sib Hall, born 10 years before Guy’s painting was made, and Harry and Ida’s great-great grandmother.
The research prompted a litany of questions. Had the painting been gifted to a member of the Hall family, a gesture of goodwill? Had it been abandoned and surreptitiously kept? Those speculative leaps knit together what the scholar Saidiya Hartman calls “critical fabulation,” an imagining of Black American histories lost to neglect and disregard. “Unnamed Figures” brims with such prompts, making all the more clear the selective priorities its fractured stories unfold.
There are dozens of these stories here, each of them a tantalizing partial sketch of lives barely remembered, if at all. A stilted 1750 portrait by Joseph Badger of a young girl, Elizabeth Greenleaf, unfurls a grim tale of racial division. Greenleaf, whose family lived in Charlestown, died in childhood with her two siblings. Their Black nanny, Phillis Hammond, was convicted of poisoning her; Hammond was executed in Boston in 1751, only 17 years old. She’s not in the picture, but she haunts it all the same.
Hints of relationships between enslavers and the enslaved loom obliquely throughout. “A View of Mr. Joshua Winsor’s House & c.,” 1793-95, by Rufus Hathaway, exalts the seaside home of the Winsors, a wealthy merchant family in Duxbury, while purposefully including a Black woman at the far left of the frame, her back turned to the viewer. The piece demands contemplation of the hierarchy of being seen. She’s a spectral presence, “one of the many unnamed Black residents of New England whose underrecognized labor paved the way for their employers’ or enslavers’ prosperity,” the curators write.
The piece embodies the exhibition’s expansive thinking about a homespun genre brimming with stories yet to be brought to light. Its efforts to dig deep into them and weave meaningful life into their intentional voids is as stirring an act of humanity as I’ve seen in a museum, maybe ever.
As much as “Unnamed Figures” is a lament, it indulges moments of celebration. A moody oil portrait of Agrippa Hull, a Revolutionary War veteran and landowner in Stockbridge,, ennobles him in old age, a tribute to a legendary freeman who didn’t live to see Emancipation. It was made in 1848, the year he died. And Joshua Johnson, an early-19th-century Black portraitist, has several pieces here. But a pair of 1843 portraits by William Matthew Prior capture what, amid the absence and degradation, feels like real triumph. The portraits are of William and Nancy Lawson, middle-class Black Bostonians who bucked social norms to afford themselves the distinction of oil portraiture. Prior, one of few portraitists willing to paint Black subjects, captured them as they wanted to be seen: clad in finery, the drape of luxurious fabric in the background. Nancy thumbs a book, signaling her literacy, when in much of the country reading was still banned for Black Americans.
They provide a standout moment, a rare beacon of clarity amid the exhibition’s shadow and fog. That fog will never lift entirely, well-placed as it is to obscure hard truths. But “Unnamed Figures” offers a compelling blueprint of how to use a maligned art form to navigate within it, and draw a more complete view of the country’s early history from the haze.
UNNAMED FIGURES: BLACK PRESENCE AND ABSENCE IN THE EARLY AMERICAN NORTH
Through March 24. American Folk Art Museum, 2 Lincoln Square, New York, N.Y. 212-595-9533, folkartmuseum.org